Can European legislation change the situation?

In December 2022, the European Parliament agreed to adopt new laws banning the import of products from deforested areas. This is a major step forward in addressing ‘imported deforestation’, i.e. deforestation that exists as a result of demand from distant markets, particularly the EU.

We can only welcome a text whose claim is to emphasize the role of markets in the dynamics that contribute to climate change, as well as to hold producers responsible for misbehaving, threatening fines if found guilty.

But if we apply the newly approved framework to deforestation in Brazil, can we expect rapid or significant changes?

The question of control: not so simple

The European Parliament is insisting that the products be managed according to traceability, which will be linked to a database obtained from satellite images proposed by Airbus and will allow the identification of deforested areas.

There is no doubt about the great accuracy of the geographic data to be produced. But linking this or that carcass of meat or this or that load of soybeans to prohibited parcels risks being more subtle.

Let’s not forget that much of the deforestation in Brazil, especially in the Amazon, is already illegal, so products from it are already banned…

If they are marketed, it is by disguising themselves, especially by making them believe they come from areas where it would be legal, using false certificates or various methods, such as buying back illegal herds for cash. it is secretly introduced into the livestock of authorized farms just before slaughter.

Will the European Union be stronger than the Brazilian authorities because, unlike the latter, it will not have access to the ground to carry out inspections?

I wonder if there isn’t a bit of technological illusion in this aspect of the legislation.

What forests? What deforestation?

As many NGOs have pointed out, the focus on forests means that the Amazon biome is currently the focus of attention in Brazil.

However, this space is not (and far from) the heart of the Brazilian agricultural system if it is attacked by the growth of the agricultural area, especially due to the development of pastures for livestock. This is in the savannahs of the center of the country ( Cerrado), has been intensively modified over four decades and resulted in massive conversion of natural vegetation to agricultural areas.

The European Parliament announced its intention to add Cerrado rapid deforestation in no-clearance areas, which could turn deforestation bans into conversion bans, with far-reaching repercussions, including in Europe. If passed (or if passed), this measure could have a greater impact than the conditions currently adopted in Brazil. This will surely lead to more reactions…

A small share under embargo

Another key issue is the reference date for field monitoring.

Currently, the end of 2019 has been selected for forests. Therefore, all land areas deforested by this date are not prohibited. Knowing that deforestation in the last three years has been about 35,500 km2 (INPE figures rounded) of the roughly 800,000 km2 deforested in the Amazon biome in Brazil, this represents 4.3% of the Amazon agricultural area that will now be banned from export. in the EU.

Assuming a trajectory of 10,000 km2 of deforestation per year over the next decade (obviously we hope it will be less!), this number will reach about 16% by 3032 – meaning that 84% of the Amazon is still deforested they export their products to the EU.

The same applies to considerations Cerrado, of course, and in this case we will see if the date to be stored is the same. Either way, it will be a small fraction of the Brazilian agricultural area that will actually be under the embargo.

As already mentioned above, some of the deforestation in the Amazon until 2020 is considered illegal by the Brazilian government, which is itself in the process of (with difficulty) establishing an environmental monitoring program (rural ecological cadastre). or CAR) to map these areas and ensure that landowners reforest them.

Putting in place tools to help Brazil move faster in this system may have more short-term effects than considering control from Europe, allowing not only the stabilization of deforestation but also the restoration of some of the lost areas. fields.

Towards two export markets?

The most serious risk faced by European legislation is to prevent Brazilian exporters from splitting their products into two markets: environmentally sound production intended for Europe (probably sold at a higher price) and manufacturing. It pays little attention to environmental conditions intended for other markets, especially the Chinese market.

Faced with this, supporters of the European text believe that the fact that Europe is the world’s leading market in general limits this risk.

Brazilian soybean and beef exports by destination country; The ratio between the polygons corresponds to the value ratio between the productions. COMEXSTAT, Provided by the author

However, from the perspective of Brazil, this assessment can be questioned. Europe imports only 14% of Brazilian soybeans and 8.8% of Brazilian beef (COMEXSTAT data) – as shown in the graph above – two products that are the main vector of deforestation (in the Amazon or other regions of Brazil).

China is responsible for 70% and 49%, while Asia as a whole is responsible for 80.6 and 62%. Only the share of the EU in soymeal is more significant and it is at the same level as China (43% vs. 44.7%), but meal and similar products do not account for only 14.4% of the total value. export of three products.

In other words, Brazil exports ten times more soybeans to Asia than it does to the European Union… so it’s not as big a market for Brazilian exporters as we imagine.

Moreover, if a significant part of the cake is exported from the state of Mato Grosso (which is ecologically located in Azerbaijan. Cerrado and Amazonia), more than half of which come from southern Brazil (Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, and Paraná states), where there are no deforestation areas. Brazil can therefore very easily supply the EU with products from the south of the country, while supplying the product it produces in the Amazon to China or other countries that do not have the same criteria.

Based on these figures, one can wonder if European legislation, however deterrent in terms of the sanctions envisaged, can really change the situation in the Amazon or in Brazil in general, especially if we have talked about it here. there are also opportunities to find alternative international markets, as well as to concentrate production (especially meat) of low environmental standards for the domestic market and reserve products of higher standards (and quality) for export.

A matter of method

The European Union believes that its legislation will be an example and will gradually be applied in other countries. But we can question this aspect according to the basic philosophy.

Indeed, the EU believes that it can determine for states what they should or should not do with their natural space, including by observing it from afar to exercise its control.

Given how fussy it is about its own sovereignty, China is unlikely to follow suit. Therefore, the risk is that we, European consumers, can pride ourselves on ecologically sound consumption without much change in the global situation, since the most important markets for products that drive deforestation are outside the EU (at least as far as Brazil). anxious).

Two blind spots

To reiterate, the fight against deforestation is legitimate and necessary, and the empowerment of European citizens is welcome. However, two blind spots are worth highlighting here.

The first is that it would be more convincing to the rest of the world for Europe to propose a new social or cultural model based on reduced consumption (the now inevitable sobriety) rather than creating more conditions for the constant consumption of its citizens. products that have a strong impact on the environment (especially meat).

Second, in the current economic and ecological system, natural vegetation areas bring in nothing, whereas once converted to agricultural land they bring in income for their owners (there are staggering environmental costs paid for by all anyway).

In Brazil, farmers cut down forests not because they hate trees, but because it makes economic sense. Reversing this through ambitious payment for environmental services policies would certainly be the most effective way to drastically limit deforestation.


By François-Michel Le TourneauGeographer, research director at CNRS, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.